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Published: Thursday, 10/27/2011

From Oprah to Obama, Lenawee farmer reaps praise

TOM HENRY
BLADE COLUMNIST

Lynn Henning and her husband, Dean, became thorns in the side of big agriculture as they saw southeast Michigan's rural landscape change near their 300-acre Lenawee County farm.

Ms. Henning made an unlikely rise to international prominence last year, as an environmental watchdog so steeped in water-quality testing practices that bureaucrats were forced to take notice. She was named the North American winner of the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize.

The Goldman prize goes annually to an environmental activist from each of the six inhabited continents. Each receives a $150,000 cash award, plus receptions with dignitaries.

For Ms. Henning, that included 12 days in Washington and meetings with President Obama, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and a 25-member congressional delegation headed by former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The award also allowed Ms. Henning, the first Goldman Prize recipient to focus on large livestock facilities known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, to deliver an Earth Day speech on the Washington Mall in front of 200,000 spectators.

"I got to meet him for 45 minutes," Ms. Henning said recently of her appointment with Mr. Obama. The whirlwind has continued since then.

O magazine, published by Oprah Winfrey, included Ms. Henning on its 2010 power list of influential women. She was interviewed by celebrity activist Erin Brockovich.

A profile of Ms. Henning in the November issue of O follows write-ups and accolades that have appeared in major national and international print and broadcast media.

In addition to speeches at conferences, she has given talks associated with showings of a searing, Oscar-nominated documentary about big agriculture, Food, Inc. She also is helping to promote a new documentary on the global water crisis, Last Call at the Oasis.

As unlikely as any of Ms. Henning's successes was the recent $1.76 million sale at auction of her former nemeses, two concentrated animal feeding operations near Hudson, Mich., owned and operated by Vreba-Hoff Dairy LLC. Those two sites, which account for 417 acres of farmland in Lenawee County's Ogden and Medina townships, are among a dozen CAFOs within 10 miles of the Henning farm.

"It's too early to jump to the conclusion that this has sent a message to factory farms," Ms. Henning said.

Ms. Henning is reluctant to speculate on what the sale will mean until the new owners are identified. But she is convinced that Vreba-Hoff's reference to declining milk prices played, at best, a minor role in its decision to sell.

Michigan environmental regulators, who at first were skeptical of pollution issues Ms. Henning raised, eventually took a dim view of Vreba-Hoff after they gave it numerous chances to redeem itself. The Michigan attorney general's office took Vreba-Hoff to court over myriad violations — many of them identified as a result of Ms. Henning's persistence.

Skip Pruss, a former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality deputy director, told me the State of Michigan had naively believed Vreba-Hoff was headed in the right direction.

The company unveiled a $1 million manure-processing unit in July, 2006, touting it as one of the nation's most sophisticated. Its numerous breakdowns became a public relations disaster for Vreba-Hoff and the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

The recognition has led to vindication for Ms. Henning and her husband, who used to find dead possums and skunks stuffed in their mailbox. Someone eventually blew up the mailbox.

Hate mail and phone calls with foul language were common. So was the creepy experience of being followed on quiet country roads in southeast Michigan — something that happened frequently enough that Ms. Henning began telling her local sheriff's office when she would be out.

Ms. Henning continues to work for the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, in a role described as CAFO water sentinel. She is on the board of directors of the nonprofit advocacy group Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan — to which she donated her Goldman prize money.

Tom Henry is an editorial writer and columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: thenry@theblade.com



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